The Monitor's Guide to Bestsellers: Hardcover Fiction

1.COLD MOUNTAIN, by Charles Frazier, Atlantic Monthly, $24

The American Civil War is the shattering force that disrupts and rearranges the lives of the characters in this richly rewarding first novel. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, turns his back on a war that has robbed him of any illusions about military glory. He sets off to find his way home to Ada, the woman he hoped to marry. Frazier's writing style is aptly reminiscent of the mid-19th century but not distractingly antiquated. By Merle Rubin

2. THE WINNER, by David Baldacci, Warner, $25

Baldacci continues to come up with clever, thriller plots. In "The Winner," however, the violence is overdone and the descriptions of the main character are repetitive. The National Lottery is exploited by a smart, yet vicious psychopath who fixes the winning numbers and then selects the winners. He invests their money, creating billions for himself. His twisted plans are foiled by LuAnn Tyler (readers will not forget Tyler, she is smart, sexy, and strong) who enlists the help of a former FBI agent to expose the fraud. By Janet Moller

3. CAT & MOUSE, by James Patterson, Little Brown & Co., $24.95

Detective Alex Cross is at it again, proving that "sooner or later almost every police investigation becomes a game of cat and mouse." As if tracking down mass murderer Gary Soneji isn't enough, he finds himself on the trail of an international serial killer, "Mr. Smith," whose handiwork is even more gruesome. When the evil hijinks cross paths, he starts putting pieces together - all the while being the loving family man and falling in love for the first time since his wife's death. By Kirsten Conover

4. A CERTAIN JUSTICE, by P.D. James, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

This is the doyen of British mystery writing's first look at crime in the Law Courts and London legal community. It is not convincing, at least for the high expectations one brings to anything written by James. An aggressive, but highly successful woman barrister has made a career of defending some of the most heinous criminals in England. She is stabbed to death in chambers. Not even her daughter is sorry. Unrealistic motives and a contrived perpetrator undercut this Dalgliesh mystery. By Jim Bencivenga

5. PARADISE, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

In her first novel since winning a Nobel Prize, Morrison tells the story of a remote, all-black town in Oklahoma founded in 1949 as a "paradise" of stability and safety. But the effects of racism on relationships among blacks warps values and stirs paranoia, leading to the grizzly murder in 1976 of women in a commune on the outskirts of town - women believed responsible for the town's decay. The irony in the book's title finds expression in the complications of returning to paradise through a history of strife. By Ron Charles

6. THE GHOST, by Danielle Steel, Delacorte, $25.95

After his marriage collapses, Charlie heads for New England to lick his wounds and whine about the unfairness of life. His plan is derailed by three women: an elderly widow who faces life with cheerfulness and grace; her ancestor, who came to the US fleeing an abusive marriage and whose journals impress Charlie with her bravery; and a single mother and former model (of course!) destined to be the love of his new life. No surprises here, but fans will enjoy the positive message and requisite happy ending. By Yvonne Zipp

7. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS, by Arundhati Roy, Random House, $23

It's easy to see why first-time author Arundhati Roy's novel has captured so much attention. This tale of a deeply troubled family in the south Indian state of Kerala is ambitious - shuttling between past and present and juggling a host of characters, from seven-year-old twins Rahel and Estha to their English cousin, Sophie Mol. But in the end, despite the unfolding tragedies, the story may leave some readers feeling strangely empty.

By Suzanne MacLachlan

8. MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, by Arthur Golden, Alfred A. Knopf, $25

Golden's debut novel unlocks the world of a traditional geisha. Told through the voice of Sayuri, a young girl sold into the near-slavery of a geisha house in the early 1930s, the story offers a historically enlightening glimpse of this age-old element of Japanese culture. Tracing Sayuri's emergence from lowly maid to geisha of renown, Golden shapes solid, but predictable, characters. Sexual situations are handled tastefully. By Kristina Lanier

9. ANOTHER CITY, NOT MY OWN, by Dominick Dunne, Crown, $25

This novel by a Vanity Fair writer is an unabashed vehicle for name dropping and retelling the rumors he heard at dinner parties while covering the O.J. Simpson trial. Seemingly unconstrained by journalistic standards of accuracy or checking the credibility of his sources, Dunne simply recounts gossipy stories, such as that O.J. Simpson confessed his guilt to a minister while in jail. Hiss flashes of thoughtful analysis of the culture of celebrity do appear but they're rare. By Abraham McLaughlin

10. THE LETTER, by Richard Paul Evans, Simon & Schuster, $15.95

Evans's final entry in the "Christmas Box" trilogy is a gentle tale of love, heartache, and hope as he revisits David and MaryAnne Parkin in the twilight of their lives. "The Letter" unravels the story of the Parkins' great love and the challenges that besiege it. Evans's latest effort won't join the annals of classic literature or be known for breaking new literary ground, but it transports one, if just for a while, to a world where good wins, compassion serves as a guide for action, and love is the most powerful force of all. By Kristina Lanier

11. THEN CAME HEAVEN, by LaVyrle Spencer, Putnam, $24.95

This final novel from the retiring romance author Spencer returns readers to her very Roman Catholic, very small Minnesota hometown ca. 1950s. The story is about the relationship between a sudden widower and his children and a woman facing the question of leaving a convent. The clean writing is engrossing and the characters believable as they face experiences and questions that can pull very hard on readers' feelings. One short sexual episode emphasizes the sacredness of marital relations. By Terry Theiss

12.THE CHRISTMAS BOX, by Richard Paul Evans, Simon & Schuster, $12.95

A glorious weep! (A personal caveat: Sadness isn't really the pre-requisite to happiness.) A Victorian attic reveals an ornate box containing sorrowful letters to a lost little angel. Night music, wafting mysteriously from the box, draws Richard to discover its secret. Once emptied of its sorrowful burden, the Christmas box epitomizes the empty tomb that could not hold Jesus.The joys of family love can conquer a materialistic sense of life and Christmas. Seasonal re-issue from last year. By Mari Murray

13. SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST, by Jonathan Kellerman, Bantam Doubleday Dell, $24.95

Alex Delaware is back. In his latest outing, the psychologist with a penchant for detective work gets himself embroiled in a particularly warped murder case. A mildly retarded girl is found dead, her grieving father is inconsolable, and the LAPD is unsurprisingly stumped. Delaware and a bevy of likable sleuths set to work to uncover a gruesome conspiracy. If you're a psychological- thriller fan, then Kellerman will keep the pages turning. But delicate readers beware: the subject matter is disturbing and often grisly. By Kristina Lanier

14. VIOLIN, by Anne Rice, Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95

After her second husband dies, a New Orleans woman finds herself haunted by a ghostly violinist who uses her misery to feed his music. In retaliation, she steals his violin and the two set off on a time-traveling trip through 19th-century Russia, Austria, and present-day Brazil. The novel decomposes into a mishmash of overblown grief and self-indulgent prose that not even appearances by the ghosts of Beethoven and Paganini can save. Even die-hard Rice fans will want to wait for her next book. By Yvonne Zipp

15. COMANCHE MOON, by Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, $28.50

"Comanche Moon," by Larry McMurtry, is the prequel to "Lonsesome Dove," (made into the popular TV miniseries). Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae become captains in the Texas Rangers. They pursue the renegade villain Blue Duck and his father the great war chief Buffalo Hump. There is drinking, whoring, scalping, killing, and various methods of torture on all the pages of this book; it is not for the weak stomach. By Carol Hartman

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